Feathers in the snow

First, a downy tuft. Then a barred tail feather. I scanned the path ahead and the woods to either side. Usually, when I find a few grouse feathers, there are more nearby, then more, then the spot where it happened.

This time, I did find more feathers, perhaps a couple dozen. But no epicenter.

One tail feather, caught a few feet off the ground among the snow-laden branches of a hemlock sapling, suggested a dramatic scene: a hawk or owl swooping, taking its prey on the wing—or off a branch above—and carrying it off for dinner. That’s how most ruffed grouse go, snatched by a raptor.

I sympathize with both hungry predator and wary prey, and am awed by both: the powerful strike of one bird, the subtle camouflage and evasive maneuvers of the other.

These kinds of predatory encounters happen all the time—birds, bugs, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals eating each other constantly. Yet, in our daily lives, we rarely see such nutritional transactions. And in our animated films—pale, distorted parables of nature that they are—animals rarely eat; miraculously, predators and prey become buddies.

It’s easy to forget about all the eating. Like the raptor swooping overhead, prey in talons, it hardly touches the ground of our consciousness.

When our thoughts do turn to nature and eating and humans, we know where we stand. At the top. You’ve probably seen the slogan on T-shirts and bumper stickers: “I Didn’t Claw My Way to the Top of the Food Chain to Eat Vegetables.”

It’s quite a fantasy—linear, neatly avoiding the cyclical truth of our own mortality. For we, too, are part of nature. We’re like the large carnivores who “in the end,” as Paul Shepard once put it, “are pursued by microbes, fungi, and plant roots.”

If you stop to think about it, there’s beauty here. The nutrients of our bodies becoming part of field, forest, and stream. Perhaps part of grouse or hawk, or drawn up into the stem and needles of the small hemlock where the grouse feather alights.

Omnivorous predator though I am, I think the T-shirt should read: “I Clawed and Clawed But Couldn’t Escape the Food Web – Soon I’ll Be Feeding Vegetables.”

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. John Barbano says:


    Very well done and insightful.

    But hmmmm.. now that you put it that way … I think I just decided to have myself cremated and ashes thrown into the wonderful waters of the bay behind my house… it sounds more civilzed to opt out of that circle of life; somehow I just don’t want to be “pursued by microbes, fungi, and plant roots.”


    I clawed and clawed AND escaped the Food Web – soon my ashes will be sleepin’ with the fishes

    • Tovar says:

      Yes, cremation does have that appeal.

      The only trouble is a pesky law of nature known as the conservation of mass. Even immolated at high temperature, you don’t go away. The basic particles remain “in the web.” You get to speed up the decomposition process a whole lot, but you still end up as part of forest, field, and—especially in your case—fishes.

      What I find fascinating are the lengths to which we go to fend off the inevitable: concrete vaults, fancy sealed caskets, embalming, cremation. These things are so familiar that we tend to assume they’re necessary.

      But, in many states, those who want to go to the grave “au naturel” can do so. Plain pine box or whatever. There’s a great book on this and related themes: Caring for the Dead, by Lisa Carlson.

  2. Richard Czaplinski says:

    Hi Tovar:

    Quite a nice article. I often think of the cycles of life. Reminds of a book I got for my grand kiddos called “Everyone is Somebody’s Lunch.” In the great scheme of things, at least on this planet, death of one is life for another.



  3. Andrea says:

    You have a very interesting blog and viewpoint– I will certainly be back.

    This post reminds me of a recent story on NPR about a woman who wants to create an ecologically friendly burial ground (cemetery) on her property. She’d rather have nature take its course with her remains, and bequeath the cemetery as a resource to her community as well, instead the property get paved over. It’s a great story. Here’s the link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121752798#

    • Tovar says:

      Hi, Andrea.

      Thanks for your interest and comment. I don’t know what happened to that link, but if you want to re-send it, I’ll add it to your post. Also, see my reply to John above.

  4. Eric Nuse says:

    The sad thing about our bodies going back to nature for recycling is the toxins we bring with us. I read somewhere that if you stacked enough of us up it would constitute a superfund toxic waste site. Hopefully eating organic and wild cuts down on the toxic build up.
    Wild leaks, wild goose soup and raw organic milk for supper…

  5. Hello Tovar,

    So glad you found my blog and left a comment, which brings me to yours! I see we have similar backgrounds and outlooks about the human-animal relationship, right down to the once vegan now hunter! I don’t know if you’ve read my ‘How to make bears and fruit trees get along’ four part series, but I think you’d find them interesting: http://howlingduckranch.wordpress.com/2009/12/03/making-bears-and-fruit-trees-get-along/

    I look forward to perusing more of your site.

    Kristeva Dowling

  6. Tovar,

    A pleasure to find your blog through a friend’s site (Norcal Cazadora).

    Have you seen much of falconry? Your interests and observations here suggest you might find much to like about the sport. I’ve been training and hunting with hawks since my teens, but only in the last decade have I started eating some of my hawks’ catches (formerly I just gave it all to my birds). Now we cook all the rabbits and game birds we catch—which leaves plenty meat on the bone for the birds, as you know from cleaning game. Plus they get all the rats and sparrows they can catch. 🙂

    In all, eating game with my family has rounded out my falconry and brought it to a very satisfying new level. I have two young girls who love game, who know where meat comes from, and an urban-raised wife who, amazingly, will dig right into some fried rabbit or a squirrrel-and-duck gumbo.

    A few posts to introduce:



    • Tovar says:

      Matt, thanks for stopping by and joining the conversation.

      I don’t believe I’ve ever seen falconry in person. I’ve only read others’ words about it, including some of Stephen Bodio’s fine writing. Birds of prey have always been very special to me, even when I was a kid.

      Thanks, too, for the links to Stephen’s site!

      • I thought you might have read some of Steve’s work. His writing on falconry and birds of prey is some of his best. But in everything he writes, he manages to weave in that man/animal/landscape thread that matches your own themes here. I hope you’ll keep blogging and helping us all understand how this wonderful thing fits together.


  7. Cork Graham says:

    There’s an honesty, and through that honesty a beauty, that you’ve captured so well, Tovar!

    As cityslicker born and raised, who didn’t get it until I needed a year of solitude in Alaska living as a subsistence hunter, angler and forager in the wilds; it’s a wonder to me that so many people don’t go mad missing out on what our inner-Human craves. If I’d known what it was like, I wouldn’t have waited until I came back wounded from a war needing that healing and nurturing cradle of Nature.

    …You’ve come up on my radar, Tovar, and I now look forward to reading more of your great painting of Nature’s Bounty!


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